Richard Clifford (Cliff) Blyth King Interview
Today is the 26 November, 2014. Cliff King of Havelock North and the life and times of his family and himself to this point today. Cliff would you like to start the story off of where your family came from and so forth.
Certainly Frank. My father was a Yorkshire man born in Scarborough in 1907, very much a Yorkshire man descended from the Vikings. We were told that our name King actually comes from the Vikings. They invaded the north east of England hundreds of years ago. He’s descended from a family of cement makers. They had that for generations.
The rigours of the First World War were pretty horrendous on the Midlands and Dad emigrated to New Zealand aged 18 in 1926. As an 18 year old boy he along with others including some very celebrated Auckland people – who became very celebrated Auckland business men who founded Lion Nathans, Sir Robert Kerridge and others. He came out on the assisted immigration scheme so as boys they arrived in New Zealand on the ‘Tainui’ in 1926, worked on dairy farms, went through the depression, lived in men’s camps and making roads and what-have-you, married my mother who was then a third generation New Zealander from Scotland from Wanganui. They were farming people. Her father was in fact the headmaster of the Ohakune High School, Thomas Arthur Blyth, a very respected member of that community and to this day there are a number of tracks and huts named after him for his pioneering work climbing the mountain and New Zealand ski champion and things of that nature.
So Mum and Dad got married in 1934 and had their first son, my older brother, in 1936 and second son in 1938 and then Dad went off to the war. He was in the RNZAF as a Flying Officer navigator. Did time mostly in the Pacific. I was born 9 months after a furlough back in New Zealand in 1943 as the third son and grew up in Wellington. Dad was lucky to receive returned soldier assistance to get established in a business of importing materials from Yorkshire where he was originally from and German silks, and Richard King & Co was the company which later my elder brother took over from Dad – Peter – and we grew up as boys living next door to the Khandallah School. Went to Nelson College because a lot of sons of military people Nelson was a public school at the time and still is but very much a military school where attention was given to marching and shooting on Friday afternoons.
And discipline. The values that had trained our parents and their parents were instilled into us at Nelson College and we did dumb bells in the morning and swinging clubs and before breakfast, did calisthenics in addition to the normal school routine. It was a school that prided itself on turning boys into men and I suppose it did for me. So I went there in 1956 and left in 1960 with School Certificate and University Entrance which – I was probably not that academically inclined so I was fortunate to get it when I think about it, but I did have a strong work instinct instilled into me by the school.
Well, I was always pretty outdoorish. We all were. I played rugby throughout my school years. Played for the 1st XV. I didn’t play in the tournament. I was injured. One of the key things which the school prided itself on was the quadrangular tournament for rugby and a number of my friends subsequently from Wanganui Collegiate and Christ’s and a couple of reprobates from Wellington College remind me that I wasn’t really a particularly good rugby player if I didn’t play in the quadrangular tournament so I can’t claim that.
But I was very keen. I was junior and intermediate tennis champion and runner up in the senior doubles championships to Colin Shanley who happens to live locally. Colin was a very good tennis player and a gymnast. Most sporting interests at that young age was it had to have a very strong actual physical aspect to them to be of interest. I wasn’t a chess player but if you had to win a running race for the school championships well you bloody well did. You did what was necessary. If it came to cross country or something pretty boring and went on and on and on, I was usually a spectator from the rear.
Nelson would have been a pretty quiet place to have been at school was it?
Sleepy hollow? Well they were still recovering from the fact that their railway was never built. Yes it was a very insular little province, then and probably still now in its own little way. Very nice values Nelson people have. I visit there occasionally from time to time now and it’s nice to observe the subtleties of the Nelson province still exist and the people. They’re gentle people, they’re not assertive people. Very protective of their environment. Nice orcharding place, tobacco growing and horticulture with more lately with the wine industry of course but we spent our spare time picking up tomatoes and fruit to earn money so part of our education really was outdoors.
I remember one occasion we got accredited for University Entrance, four of us for a bet – we got on our bikes at 10 o’clock at night whenever it was. We rode over to Motueka and back in the nude. I mean it’s hard to credit isn’t it? Peter Hogg and myself. Well as fate would have it we were just coming back through Richmond, racing like hell to get back in time because we could see the first shafts of daylight appearing and who should come hurtling past us this big fat slob on his motor bike who turned out to be our house tutor. Well we were sprung. But he didn’t say anything for 2 or 3 days and then he quietly got us and caned the four of us.
He let you sweat a bit.
Yes because he knew that we knew. So it was “well you can wear the clothes that you had on when you were biking boys but you are going to get six of the best.” He did let us put our underpants on. So Nelson was a good experience for all three King brothers. We were nicknamed ‘Wrinkle’ because of the caning incident that my elder brother had had. He was observed to have a wrinkled bum after he had been caned so he was called ‘Wrinkle Bum’. Blyth. my next brother, was called ‘Wrinkle 2’ and I was ‘Wrinkle 3’ and I am still called ‘Wrinkle’ by ex school friends. 55 years later. So that was Nelson.
Left school without too many objects in life. I loved the outdoors. My father had bought a ketch. They still lived in Wellington but moved to Auckland in my last year at school in Nelson. Mum and Dad moved to Auckland. He took his ketch with him. I had sailed all round the Sounds in this ketch during holidays and weekends and of course when we moved to Auckland we sailed to various off shore islands around New Zealand and had some wonderful experiences watching the tuna fishing and at 4 am at dawn catching tuna 100 miles off the coast. Quite astonishing.
I loved all this freedom and the notion of actually having a career of some profession held no appeal. It was generally understood that I’d go into Dad’s business which my brother had done. My next brother had become a lawyer but Mum was always at me to go into farming because it was her background, and I had stayed with farmers up in the Wanganui district at Upokongaro, and enjoyed the freedom that farming offered. So it was arranged with a mate that we would go down and cut some scrub from about the 12 December when school finished through until early February when I was to start and get a job.
And we went to Hicks Bay and up the end of this Waikura Valley which went miles and miles through gunga country. We finally got to the Hindmarsh family, he was the boss, Tane, little short aggressive man and his wife a lovely lady a world expert in camellias. So we spent the next two months living in a camp under canvas down the river cutting kanuka with an axe and we cleared between us about 40 odd acres. It was wonderful, catching pigs and chasing deer, tickling trout and doing everything, but we had blisters on our hands to prove that we had done something.
But we didn’t make any money because Tane turned out to be quite a miserly payer and we sort of arrived back in Auckland with not too many pounds shillings and pence in our pocket but I did have £40 because I remember looking at buying a Model T car and Dad sort of frowned and said ‘you’ll be broke forever if you spend it on that’ so we didn’t buy that car and I have regretted it ever since.
But what I did take home from that much more, infinitely more valuable than the £40 was the notion that I would become a farmer come hell or high water I wanted to be like Mick Allen and Pip Hindmarsh and a few more of these guys on their horse with their dogs and the freedom of the day to execute whatever they had to do.
I didn’t know anything about livestock at that point so I secured a job for a farmer, Hazel Lane, at Ngatapa in Gisborne on the similar hills but much closer to Gisborne. When we were scrub cutting up the coast it was pretty wild and woolly and we’d sort of go to the pub – aged 17 or 18 or something. Go down to the pub at Te Aroha Dick – Richardson’s pub – you know, I’d be trying to court his daughter, Di Richardson she was real sweet. We weren’t really supposed to be there anyway. We’d have a jug of beer and then I’d go down the beach with Di and then it would be Max’s turn, and then it was our next … three of us were in this gang of scrub cutters so we each had to take turns with Di. “Did you get a cuddle?” “No.” “I got a kiss”. “Oh you lying bastard, you never did”. So all this kind of bull shit went on.
So that then took us into the farming twelve months where I was really taught by a wonderful, wonderful returned soldier farmer how to do things. How to kill a sheep, how to catch a horse, how to look after your bridle, how to shoe a horse, what your heifers had to be, where your hoggets should be grazing and where they shouldn’t, how to strain a fence, all the hand tools of the basics of a hill country farm, and what wonderful tutelage that turned out to be. In fact this morning I have just been straining up some [?] for Richard using exactly the same gear that they taught me to use 55/60 years ago. It was a great year and actually encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to go to Lincoln College which I wasn’t really interested in and so he applied without telling me.
And then at this stage I had bought a motor bike and I couldn’t ride the bloody thing. I’d fall off and I never had any decent clothes, because you’re always falling off and getting grease stains on your pants. I remember going to a ball one night and taking Rees Allan’s daughter on the back of it. Turned up at the house to take Di to the Ngatapa Rugby Club Ball which was really just a shambles but however Rees took one look at me and said ‘you can’t take my daughter out looking like that’ so he took me upstairs and put me into a dinner jacket, pants and everything and said ‘right off you go young chap’.
Well it was all going pretty good really except the Ball turned out to be what your first Ball does … and anyway to cut a long story short Rees’ son David – we were all putting a scrum down or something and he ripped the arm off his old man’s dinner jacket which I had on. So I thought this isn’t going to be good for a relationship with Di. Di thought it was a huge joke anyway. But we went home on the motor bike. She ripped her dress on a bit of a gorse hedge and we kind of got tangled up with down past the hospital so I ended staying with the boys in the garage and I remember waking up and seeing this dinner jacket staring at me. I can still see it hanging up on a coat hanger without a sleeve and we didn’t know where the sleeve was. We went back to the Rugby Club and searched high and low under the… no, wasn’t there. David had it stuffed in the back of his pocket. I can’t recall the outcome but I do remember being pretty – that was one highlight of the year in Gisborne.
And I had my first little heading dog and huntaway and Hazel taught me how to work a dog and how sheep should be treated, how dogs should be treated and it was a wonderful year and then these three men turned up one afternoon and interviewed me for something I had no idea about. And then I was told it was a Rural Field Cadetship which didn’t mean too much to me but a friend of my brother’s, Guy Ashton, had been a Rural Field Cadet six or seven years earlier and it became clear that from Guy telling Mum and Dad that Clifford should pursue this.
So I got selected to the final interviews in Wellington and there was one small incident that occurred there which was rather amusing. Veronica (I think) was the secretary and sitting there waiting for my turn and talking to this girl she was sort of doing things and looking up at me all the time. I said ‘where do you have lunch round here?’. To cut a long story short we went and had lunch together. But I was the last interview before lunch. That was all right. The interview did what interviews do I suppose. And I came out and she took me round the corner in Lambton Quay and we were sitting down in this little coffee shop having sandwiches and stuff and in walked the three guys who had just interviewed me. Well, of all the bloody places in Wellington that they should go for lunch it happened to be right at the table right next door to where I’m sitting in a green slouch hat on and Gisborne cowboy boots and looking the part having got off the train that morning. I thought – Oh well that’s the end of that enterprise – I didn’t think he’d be too impressed with me pinching his secretary for lunch.
But he did. Vince McLean was his name and Hep King. They were icon administrator servants to New Zealand’s agriculture and that Rural Field Cadet Scheme became famous for producing the likes of Wilson Whineray, Kelvin Tremain. And many other successful business people and sportsmen were selected on that same process that I had been through and I was picked with 15 other boys to undergo training at Lincoln which included two years practical experience, one on a sheep farm which I had just completed, I then went down to Southland and worked on an intensive sheep and cropping farm, sowed bags of barley, wheat and oats all summer, and then went to Lincoln and did a diploma in agriculture followed by 6 months on a dairy farm (which is where the Field Days are now held in Hamilton), and another year at Lincoln followed by the valuation in farm management diploma (VFM) which was hugely popular with the Civil Service for the next 25 years. Many of the successful people in the Civil Service had either a degree in agriculture science or a VFM and the value to them was that these were boys who had had some practical experience and weren’t just University graduates. And because we were sort of hand picked to a degree a number of us had a bit of enterprise, didn’t really see our future career with the Civil Service forever but we were bound to them for 5 years.
I completed three of those 5 years and then had to buy my way out of that. However they were highlight years at Lincoln because here was country boys thrown into a university situation or agricultural college as Lincoln then was – just looking for trouble and we were good at finding it. This is where I really started to get a bit keen about playing rugby and playing representative rugby, winning a drinking blue, which I still have, and competing in Easter tournament in rowing. It was pretty physical.
And Lincoln is, well how do you describe Lincoln? It comprised really of 2 years of just social activity with guys having a marvellous time terrorising the nurses home at Carlton and the dental nurses and going off to Easter tournaments and then a very intensive final year for this VFM which is still regarded by certainly by those who endured it – it stretched every single individual to the limit. We would be working at our desk until 2 or 3 in the morning completing field tests. It was very intensive. But it made us who we became and it taught us our professional ethic in the way that a lawyer and accountant or surveyor or engineer. We had a professional ethic instilled into us to deal with farmers and interview them as to the nature of their farming activity and be able to do their budgets and value their assets etc.
That was the education phase of my life. But right at the death knell of completing it I met Jan, and Jan was the daughter of a very prominent Christchurch family, the McPhails, who were a clan rather than a family because there were several brothers, they’d all been in the war. They’d all achieved sporting pinnacles. Her uncle was an All Black selector at the time, her father was the Chairman of the Rugby Union, Chairman of the Victory Park Board, a decorated soldier, Neil was a returned prisoner of war. And these men were men. They were men with distinguished records in their own world. And so it was reluctantly, as a North Islander regarded rather sceptically in this situation, taking their little Jan out and promptly drinking all the milk at the mail box before you left.
However we became engaged and married in April 1966 at which point I had been assigned to work in Rotorua for the Lands & Survey Department. Graduated one day, married the next. Honeymoon in the back country of the High Country and up into Crail Bay in the Sounds where I discovered the girl I had married didn’t have a clue how to cook mussels or flounders or scallops or fish or anything all the things that I mean were pretty important to me. So that was interesting. She probably discovered all my faults too.
So that was kind of the end of my single days or our single days and we began our life together in Rotorua, me as a Field Officer with the Lands & Survey Department doing budgets for returned soldiers at Waiketi and Taupo and Whakatane. And Jan as a Staff Sister at the Rotorua Hospital and making clothes, doing sewing and earning money and in my spare time myself and David Smyth bought a tractor and we’d go up to Mamaku and pull pungas out of the bush and sell them for sixpence a foot. We sold thousands and thousands of pungas. We used to borrow Dennis Gaynor’s truck and deliver them on the weekend and we paid cash. This was all with the objective of getting a deposit so we could put in for a ballot farm. We were very focused at this stage on going farming. And I played rugby but rugby was always second. I played for Rotorua Old Boys and sat on the bench for Bay of Plenty for a couple of games. But this was all with an objective of getting our own farm and Mum and Dad didn’t have the resources and nor did the McPhails. It was a case of do it yourself so we set to and the punga was the key to it.
So we worked hard but it was good for me because it toughened up a student and gave him a strong back, and I guess one recollection of that we got this contract to build a beer garden at Wairakei Tourist Resort. It was a big beer garden and the pungas got stood up and made walls all round the little out post here, there and everywhere, and it was worth about £1000, might have been £1200. It was pounds anyway. We cut all these things, got them all cut to length, took the truck down and we got the football club to come down on Saturday morning and we were going to put this whole thing up in the morning, the two of us, pretty much the whole team. And sure enough we strained up the bottoms, pulled all the pungas tight together, strained the tops, filled the trenches, stood the pungas up, collected the thousand or twelve hundred quid and went home.
Played Whaka in the afternoon, gave them a bloody good hiding too as I recall because we were all kinda psyched up and physical with all this rushing around. Then everybody sort of looked around and said “well where’s that thousand quid, we’d better put it on the bar at Brent’s”. And Whaka Maniapoto boys came, and Dinny, Murray and others, and we sort of thought “yeah, why don’t we do that?” They would always entertain us after a game and we’d go up to their club rooms at Whaka, and Howard Morrison & Co would be singing and you’d have a really good night with a decent hangi and plenty of music – and this had always gone on and so we said ‘well it’s our turn. You come down to our club rooms’ which were down at rugby park, pretty boring, it had a hot pool and that’s about it and all that ever happened was that someone got chucked in the pool. So we said come to Brent’s to the private bar at Brent’s. Well the thousand quid went that night and what a good night it was too and remembered by all.
But nonetheless the dollars kept stacking up in the back ground. We’d bought our little house at Ngongataha and we’d done it up, and the time came the ballot farms were issued and I’d put in for one or two. I was a bit cautious about the quality because as I was doing budgets for marginal lands farmers and returned soldiers which was the last line of lending, you quickly developed an appreciation for what were the successful ingredients necessary to be a successful farmer. A big part of that was having the right farm, and so when we came to appraising your own future and the farms we would put in for and what ones we wouldn’t I was pretty fussy on the criteria.
However to cut a long story short we missed out on our ballot opportunities in the first year that we put in, we didn’t get selected, but those farms did very well down at Pahakuri and one in Gisborne. I chose not to put in for the farms at Te Anau or Taupo, they were just a bit small.
When the second year came round the Government changed the rules and said well these ballot farms are for farming boys, shepherds, managers, they’re not for field officers, people like myself, and that was a complete shock to me. So I resigned the job immediately and took up a job managing 3000 acres at Reporoa and then went and saw the Minister of Lands, Duncan MacIntyre, and said if you had told me a year ago that I had to have a year’s experience I would have done it then. I had to pay $500 or $1000 odd to buy my way out of my bond and so I demonstrated a commitment and they gave me dispensation to get into that next ballot which we were so fortunate to win our farm No. 6, and for a deposit of $11,500 we got 800 acres at Putere in Northern Hawke’s Bay. It was a farm which was $60,000 all up, land and buildings, stock and plant. We had our $11,000. We had it leasehold in the first year so we had a mortgage of $44,000 and the freehold if we wanted it was a fee of $6000 I think.
So here we are with our Volkswagen and an hour and a half off the main road at Raupunga on a very windy gravel road with no power, no phone and seventeen gates to get the mail once a week and 800 acres and 5 paddocks. A new house built in a ridiculous position stuck on a ridge, a woolshed, no yards and no holding paddocks, so it was roll your sleeves up and get into it.
Power came some time later. We put our own phone in for the first year along with our neighbours Owen Costley, Ian Brickell and Peter Bedingfield and basically got stuck in. It was a hell of a good farm. It was a third pumice, a third papa and a third limestone. The most perfect little one man farm you could really dream of for that contour. It all faced north. There wasn’t a water trough on the paddock yet every paddock had a limestone spring or a stream through it. The stock were very healthy. It had been the clearing of a station which I later recorded the history about, and this particular 800 acres was the early country of about 7000 acres where the stock would congregate in the late Winter and early Spring. It had a fertility and a micro climate about it which suited cattle and sheep and we did well. We did exceptionally well. We had 5 inches of rain every month for ten years give or take an inch. Unbelievable.
And our $44,000 mortgage we paid off $4000 the first year, $6000 the second year and the third year I forget what we paid off it might have been $6000 or $8000 but we also bought another farm and we shifted the house. We cut the house in half, prepared another house site lower down on the farm and more sheltered and it really became our home for life at this point because it was humming. Cattle prices had gone well. Sheep prices were lifting. Wool prices were still strong. It was a very, very good period to be farming and we had a farm with a very low cost structure and we were able through a very benign climate and a lot of clover in the country because it was sort of reasonably new, that everything just fattened quickly. I think we topped the weaner fair for six out of ten years.
I adopted some very, at the time then, new management techniques. We calved our heifers in one cycle in June and our cows in one cycle in July and so we had really good beefy weaners to sell with big dewlaps and strong coats because of the limestone water. The buyers really chased our cattle.
Likewise with the sheep because we were able to get good lambing percentage from cross breeding the Romneys with the Border Leicester to keep the first cross. Having a high lambing percentage in excess of 120 enabled us to keep all the ewe lambs and basically, after about 3 or 4 years, 40% of the flock were 2-tooths that don’t die, and had reliable lambing. We didn’t have lamb hoggets so about 40% were 4-tooths and 20% were 6-tooths. So we were selling genuine 4 year old ewes at a death rate of 2-3%, high, high wool weights because they were all young sheep. Easy to muster because they were all first cross – flap your raincoat when the paddock was done. Very healthy sheep which enabled me to go and buy another farm close to Wairoa where we envisaged we would later go and live close to schooling etc. which was two dairy farms and that we just used for buying in bullocks and fattening them for the butchers in Wairoa.
We didn’t ever go and live there as it turned out but it did give me some flexibility with our livestock policies at home at Waikohe and we had a philosophy there of running as few ewes as I could. I only wanted 2000 lambs. We were settled with 1600 ewes and 160 cows and we built our 1600 ewes up to 2000 ewes and then getting far too many lambs, so I cut the ewes back to sort of 1800, 1600, 1400 so I was getting my 2000 lambs and I got down to about 1280 something ewes still doing the 2000 lambs, and of course that farm was so efficient. Sheep were always fat and so much flexibility, reliable rainfall. It was simple and profitable.
So they were the most productive years in our life. Jan was busy with our young family. Sarah had been born six months prior to us going to the farm, she was born in Rotorua, and Cameron was born 18 months after we got to the farm and Richard 2 years after that. Putere was a district which became our lives. It was an empty valley that had been a First World War Soldiers settlement and the remnants were largely gone and the Lands & Survey had bought two big stations and redeveloped them and were settling young farmers such as ourselves. The school was there catering for about 16 or 18 people and that quickly grew to double to 35. It was a 2 teacher school and the valley fell into two halves. The older families who had been there and these young brash outsiders who knew it all, and there was a lot of tension and it usually surfaced at the school. We had good school teachers but we worked hard we played hard and when there was an argument it was a bloody big argument. The quicker you got over it and got on with having a party and that’s back country life. The imprint is indelible. I recognise it to this day the people who have lived in the back country. There’s something about them that I just identify with and Jan does too. Whether it’s the deprivation or the hardship you’d gone through or the lack of social contact or the commitment or the fact you had to dock in a gale, what it was, but being a back country person meant you didn’t get to the pictures. Our children probably didn’t go to the pictures – once every two years if they were lucky. They didn’t play in football teams and sports teams because there wasn’t enough of them and if they did the girls would be in the front row.
As young married going to Te Putere it must have been quite an adjustment for a while?
Huge culture shock. Our nearest neighbour was three miles away and that was [?] Gates and they weren’t our age. They were 15/20 years older than we were. There were a lot of Maori shepherds consistent with the Lands & Survey Department we got on well with the community but we were lonely. Jan was tremendous the way she… I had my farm to concern myself with and Jan had young children but she was tremendous in those years the way she sort of – her mother had died and then her father had died, and for a girl who had been brought up in such a close Fendalton community in Christchurch to endure that loneliness it was always – well, I was indebted to Jan’s sacrifice and that came out 10 years later when we started to make some decisions to correct that part of life. But for the 10 years that we were there and loving it, it was different it was so different. And the stories and the experiences – some of them were just hilarious.
And it was during that period that the school had a 75 year reunion and as part of that the district commissioned me to record the history of the stations and the school. So we, as you do in the back country, put together a committee and somebody did this and somebody did that, and so and so organised the day, and my job was to get down all the historical records from all the old families of who was there then and what now.
And that was a most insightful experience for me as suddenly I was looking at the history of something that I knew very well in today’s terms but here I was studying what it was 75 and 100 years ago. The same roads, the same paddocks, different technology, still farming. How did they do it then? Why do they do it now? And that made a complete man out of me because suddenly I understood where we kind of fitted in to the span of life when you start looking back over three generations and think why did he put that crossing in there or why did they shift the school when it could have been so easily over there by the orchard.
And so those sorts of little things which taken in a total form over a 40,000 acres valley – it became apparent to me that change was happening and would continue to happen although it hadn’t happened when we were there or I hadn’t observed it happening, in fact it was, and there was all sorts of changes rolling round. In commerce, in farming, in New Zealand and in social things changing, but here we were in our little time capsule in the back country completely oblivious of it all. I took on a new view of who we were and what we could achieve in our lifetime and what were our skill sets to a date and change. At the age of 25 we’d achieved our ambition to own our own farm. At the age of 28 we had a couple more farms at Oamate and did I want to be docking in the same place for the next forty years? Did I want to own a whole lot more land – not really. I had an efficient little business but did I want more social opportunities and sporting opportunities for my children – well that was a definite yes. Did I want to see Jan enjoying more female company other than the twelve families that she engaged with.
So that started me thinking on the next step and the next chapter in my life, the involvement and commitment that would take and why we would be doing it. It was difficult to explain to Jan. Having dragged her in there by her hair I now had twice the task of taking her away from her home and all the newly established friendships and everything to begin a new life with people we didn’t know.
We looked at Gisborne and I was imbued with the idea of establishing a business that could earn some money without me so it could run itself and I only knew agriculture and farming but this kiwifruit thing looked to be a pretty successful thing so we looked at the Bay of Plenty and buying some land and developing a big block which I could then retire back from and resume livestock farming because that was what I was good at. And we’d go and live in Gisborne.
Well first of all it was Bay of Plenty, but Jan quickly scotched that. She said no. She didn’t want to live with the humidity that we perceived the Bay of Plenty as having a fibre in its community in the way that the East Coast townships do, so Gisborne was the second choice and we’d line up a farm to buy and an orchard land to do and then I missed out on the option of the farm.
So we looked again at Hawke’s Bay and Havelock North where we acknowledged that one of the main reasons we were moving was for schooling and of course where better for schooling than in Havelock North, and where better for a nice stable future for Jan and us as a family than Havelock North. There was plenty of horticulture potential, there was wonderful farming opportunities so it became real. We sold the farm for $200,000 to a pig hunter who was the son of the local chairman of the Catchment Board Eric Batson, Brian bought our farm. And Brian didn’t really pursue the same livestock policies as we did. He stacked up a lot of sheep and at about that time the climate changed and became quite dry for the next ten or fifteen years and the pumice element of that country meant that when it got dry it takes a long time to recover. The limestone and the papa was fine but if you’re stocking it a bit heavily … so they didn’t enjoy quite the prosperity that we had. But I still go back to the farm every year in the autumn. It‘s been subsequently bought by the Brickell family. Young Ian Brickell is farming it now. He’s a good conscientious little farmer. He’s like his father. A good boy, good stockman. It gives me great pleasure to see the farm looking well again and all the trees that we planted have… they’re all great big oak trees and elm trees and it’s lovely now. It was pretty bleak in those days when we went there with the pumice lying everywhere and…
Having no yards and no …
No we fenced it all right. We put in a new set of yards down the middle of the farm. It was a piece of cake by the time we left. And the advent of motor bikes. Of course in the early years it was a horse – and the 1st September 1969 I was coming back from a lambing beat I fell of the horse at a gate way for some reason, I don’t know what happened, and I got kicked in the face and dragged by the horse and had a fractured spine.
So that was pretty traumatic for Jan. Fortunately I had a heading bitch which licked all my face wounds as well. My face was all busted and teeth knocked out but she cleaned the wounds out licking me and I couldn’t see – I was blind. I remember hanging on to Ben’s collar and staggering up the track where we lived which was probably three or four hundred feet further up high and Jan realised I was late. Anyway, so she got me to hospital and I sort of came right. It’s only really just about three or four weeks ago that I got some of my teeth capped, so you can say I’ve got a nice jaw again. I feel confident. All my life I’ve lived with this very numb bottom lip as a result of that horse accident. But that was just exhaustion, working too hard and going in to play rugby in Wairoa just to meet some guys twice a week. Two hours into town and two hours home again.
So no back problems since?
No. I can thank the pungas for that. I’ve been very lucky to have strong legs and a strong back and I think it was all the lifting of the pungas at an age when all your muscles are building. My body has looked after me.
Well, they always say that your back is held together by your stomach muscles and your spine is also held together by the strength of your back muscles, and of course your legs are a result of being able to do the work with the rest of your body. It’s quite logical really isn’t it?
Yes. Well I know I’ve got a stronger back than either of my sons and David Smyth who worked with me, David too is still a close friend. David says he’s blessed with good strong legs and a good strong back. So anyway young ones – if you want to enjoy a good skeletal frame go and pick up pungas.
That kind of brought us into the next phase of our life. But we had become Wairoa people. We had earned our respect around Wairoa because we were good at anything. The things that we set out to do we set out to do properly and that was our kind of legacy. We still have a number of friends in Wairoa and I subsequently spent 10 years as a director of the County Council’s roading local authority trading enterprise LATE it’s called. QRS and that has kept me in touch with the district and with roading and infrastructure and the people and we of course have got ourselves a nice bach up at Mahia which we all use quite regularly. So it’s nice to see people you know and it’s nice to be known locally. I like small towns. It’s something that if you’ve lived in a small town in back country New Zealand it never leaves you. Eye for detail in a small community and you really appreciate the individuals in it as being different and having the right to be different.
In this interviewing people Cliff, I’ve noticed that some of these people I’m interviewing are in their mid to late 90s, and it’s amazing they all know one another and yet they were not in the same area – but all of a sudden I realise that all these villages were small. They’re only a tenth of the people anywhere at that stage. Of course they would all know one another.
Well, you know their sisters and cousins and that’s the linkage. ‘So and so’s mother’s coming to stay.’ ‘Oh yes well she was a Williams you know and her brother married so and so Lowry.’ And so you appreciated all those and that in my life came out very much in the next ten years of our life when I started the rural property trust and buying farms and having this understanding of small communities became paramount in being accepted in the wider farming community for someone who had some judgement and who understood the subtleties of a farming community. Oh no, Wairoa was a good period in our life and we still renew it every time we go back up to Mahia with fishing and Waikaremoana and the friends. It’s something we treasure.
Well that cup of tea has just… Jan’s just renewed some of our recollections of the life at Otoi, Te Putere and the road was the paramount link to the town. The telephone when we first went there was a hand grind – ‘working, working’ – and that was our link but very unreliable and of course the road then became the next most important thing and various amusing things would happen on the road. Mason Horne, our local mayor, was notorious for being able to hold a lot of alcohol but a very, very good and careful driver. You’d quite often find him sound asleep in the middle of the road in his Falcon at different stages of the evening or early morning. There is the occasion I recall when Mason had to jump out of his car and hop into the school bus and drive that because Marge, his wife, had been driving the school bus because Mason hadn’t got home. No one ever feared for Mason’s life because they knew he would stop the car and he had and Marge had to drive the school bus in the morning because it was Mason’s turn so she drove up the road until she found Mason in the car. She woke him up and Mason drove on and Marge took the car home. Well – it took a few years to live that one down.
And then there was another occasion I was coming home and I had just got this second hand Fairlane because it was an automatic car and it was Bill Webb’s – who was the manager of Richmond’s – and it was marvellous because we had three young kids and bassinets and all the stuff that goes with it and to be able to get in and out without changing gears was a very big plus. Anyway hooning off home after the Frasertown dog trials, which I’d done no good at, we came floating round the corner and it was a bit of a foggy night and next minute – wham bam wallop – we were in amongst a mob of pigs. And they were big pigs and I was quite used to wild pigs. In fact I think if you added the tally up I probably killed a pig every two or three days for ten years. Wild pigs. That’s how ravaged we were with pigs. Not that I wanted to, but the damn things were there and that’s the reason why Brian Batson bought the farm there because I’d employed him to come and get rid of these boars which were beating the hell out of the new grass.
But anyway here I am in my new Fairlane bumping and running over things and thinking ‘oh Christ, this is going to be expensive’ so I get out of the car and there’s a couple of pigs writhing on one side and another squealing down the bank and an old sow out cold. I picked up two that I can recall and slung them in the boot in amongst all my groceries and everything else that we’d got for the day. The kids were still asleep in the back of the car, dragged the old sow over the side of the road and had a quick look at the front. There was no water coming out of the radiator and that was all right. A bit of the grill was sort of buckled. I drove home and just as I was coming up past the shearers quarters I remembered that John Smith next door was crutching, and Willie Calshaw, the shearers from Raupunga – the gang was in the shearers quarters so I thought ‘I know what I’ll do’. So I shot in there quietly. Opened the boot and one of the pigs had woken up and it was kind of blinking at me so I grabbed it, opened the shearers quarters door, closed the door and then knocked and then got in the car. Just as I was getting in the car a light flicks on then another light. “What the f……’s going on here?!”.
Anyway, it was the talk of the valley for a while. I chucked the other pig in Willie’s truck so he would have got a shock in the morning when he went to get in the car to go up to the shed and there’s another bloody pig sitting there.
It was a district of practical jokers. For about three years we were always playing jokes on somebody else. If you went to the dog trials and you’d had a run and you were thinking you wanted to go to the long drop to have a pee you would always check that there wasn’t any golden syrup on the seat because those sort of things happened.
And the other aspect of Putere life which was a feature really was the music. We were blessed with the Gilbert family who had this wonderful musical talent among five or six of them. Sam Allan had one eye. [?] Gilbert wrote and could play any instrument. Played one saxophone. His other brother played the other saxophone. Young Willie was the drummer but they’d all swap instruments when it suited them. There were a couple of guitars as well and they were very good and they were good at playing Maori music and all the “Ten Guitars”. There were lots of sing-a-longs that happened. Single night parties often ended up being all weekend affairs. The dog trials were always a lot of fun but always finished up with wonderful music. It was probably something that the Putere people were terribly lucky as distinct from other districts who people would come in to our district knowing we were having a party for somebody’s 60th or 40th or whatever and there would be no trouble getting people to come to your party because they always knew that the Blue Moons would be there.
It’s interesting how flexible your transport system was when you were referring to the gentleman that died, and you sent him to Wairoa in the bus.
Did I record that?
No you didn’t.
Oh well. Otoi was a station owned by the Lands & Survey and Walter Ngerengere was one of their shepherds. Walter was, as Jan related earlier, a very old-time Maori. Made all his own clothes, saddlery, shod his horse, he had good horses and dogs. Anyway Walter developed a kind of affinity, because he was trapping possums and things in the weekend up near us and he used to borrow my tractor to get them all back, because he got 430 odd one night poisoning.
So we got quite close to helping Walter out with different things if we were going to town and one morning Millie his wife rings up, quite early, and says “Oh it’s Walter, Kingi”. She used to call me Kingi. “Kingi, it’s Walter – he won’t wake up”. I said “Do you want me to come down?” “Yes, you come now”. So I go down and sure enough here’s Walter as dead as a pole sitting up in bed clean as anything, house had been scrubbed. “So what do we do now?” “So we’ll have to ring the policeman, Millie and notify the Police”. “Oh I don’t know about – you ring Jack”. I said “It’s all right Millie, I’ll deal with it. Do we need to ring his family? Where is his family?” “They’re at Tolaga Bay.” “Okay, you’ll need to come with me and use our phone for the toll calls and I’ll arrange with Jack and they’ll take Walter. But I’m shearing at the moment so I’ve got to be back at the shed by count out time at 7 or 9” or whenever the time was.
So she dresses Walter up and here he is sitting there in his lovely home spun knit jersey complete with his hat on and everything. I sat him up in the car and put the seat belt on him and took him out … and drove him out to Raupunga to meet Bill James the undertaker and Jack ? the policeman.
Well, Jack had to go to Napier for a hearing so he couldn’t stay. The undertaker, Bill James, was in Whakatane and he wasn’t going to get back. “So you have to take him into Wairoa”. I said “Well, I can’t take him into Wairoa, I’ve got the shearers”. So Jack had left a message “just put him on the service car” which just pulled in as I was there, to Callinicos General Store and the three passengers get off and go and get their ice creams and things, and Wally the driver said “Quick – we’ll put him in the back seat now and prop him up with a suitcase and no one will know the difference, and I’ll drop him off at the undertaker’s when the passengers get off.” And that’s exactly what happened, and my last recollection of Walter was seeing him sitting up in the back of the bus, something he had never been on in his life. And his family came down from Tolaga Bay and about five days later we went up to the tangi and buried him on top of a scrubby hill.
Yes, it could only ever happen in the back country couldn’t it?
Well, that was the way. The after shot of that little event was that I got asked to be a Justice of the Peace because every district is supposed to have a JP for these sorts of events. If you can’t get hold of the Police you’ve got to tell the local JP. So I’ve been a Justice of the Peace for nigh on 40 years as a result purely of having to take Walter out to Raupunga.
However, these are life’s little twists and turns but parties and people and good experiences. Those are the recollections that I take with me to my future from those ten years in Putere. The farming achievements and achieving all the goals and the critical things pale into insignificance really in the scheme of life when I think back to the happy events that occurred for us all and the character forming things that took place for us and the children. That was kind of the end of that chapter.
We moved in April 1979 to Havelock North where we had bought an old homestead that was built in the 1920s by Mr Bell of the Bell Tea fame. He’d built this lovely old home at 40 Selwyn Road. He’d had TB in Dunedin where he’d founded his tea company and in the house fire he’d almost died with asphyxiation because his lungs were affected with TB so they told him he had to go and live in the sanatorium for TB patients in Waipukurau or Central Otago or Queensland or somewhere very dry.
Well, he came to Havelock and he built this big house and he imported a ship load of American redwood, the real deal, because it doesn’t burn, and he built this house. And we were lucky to live in it for thirty years. He had died and the Burbery’s had owned it and there was all sorts of interesting events happened in that house as the family grew up. One particular morning a plumber sticks his head round the side of the garage and said “Mr King can you come over here please? We’re renovating the house next door and there’s a pipe coming out from under your garage and it’s pouring out boiling hot water.” And sure enough there it was. We traced the pipe and it came from the flat upstairs in the old house. What it transpired was old Mr Burbery – when he’d lived there he’d built a little cottage next door, also out of the remnants of this redwood – and his son-in-law lived in the big house but he’d put the hot water into his new house out of the water cylinder in the old house and for the rest of his life he never paid a hot water bill – his son-in-law would have paid it, not knowing.
And then Miss Twentyman lived there for fifteen or eighteen years and I ended up paying her hot water bill for ten or fifteen years without ever knowing. So those are some of the interesting events of owning an old house.
We just hopped into developing an orchard to pursue this idea of having a separate business from what I wanted to be as a farmer, that would earn some money for our retirement without the need for me to be working it and I could get on and do the things I wanted to do, which generally farming was not becoming very profitable through the ’80s and early ’90s.
So we bought this orchard down the Napier Road which had pear trees that were 16/17 years old. It had been an old pip fruit orchard. There was a bit of stone fruit at the back but it was an historic bend of the river next to Tommy Tanner who was an early pioneer of Hawke’s Bay and had built a magnificent homestead. This was right slap bang alongside it and in fact had been his horse paddock. It was owned by the Flanders. Colin Flanders owned it when we went there in 1979.
We pulled out all the trees and planted all the kiwifruit and worked like hell for four or five years and pretty much went broke. We just couldn’t make it pay. I had bought a farm down Middle Road fortunately, which sustained us during this period and helped educate the children, but the kiwifruit was just like having five mortgages all at once. So we sold it and in fact Jan’s brother bought it, Alistair, and he farmed it for three or four more years and he came to the same conclusion that I had come to.
But Hardy Evans was the orchard manager, and Hardy had worked for me in Wairoa on one of the dairy farms that I bought at Oamate. And Hardy was the son of Carlo, our lawyer, and Carlo and Hardy were real characters. And I can probably illustrate Hardy – one morning we were at work at the orchard and we had a bloke Grant working for us, he was a bachelor, and Hardy was a man of very, very few words. And Grant was late this particular morning and shuffles in on a dead frosty cold morning, the sort of morning you hate picking up the pruners but you know it’s got to be done. So we’re getting into our pruning and Grant waltzes is in just as Hardy is putting the jug on for morning tea. “Oh, gidday Hardy”. “Gidday Cliff. Sorry I’m late. I’ve been busy doing this, that and the next thing”, and next minute Grant says “Oh, Hardy I saw you at the dump on Saturday” and Grant said “Yeah I saw you there, Grant I saw you. Who was that sheila you had in the car with you?”. Grant said “Oh, that’s Veronica”. There was rather an injured tone to his voice as Grant had a new girlfriend quite frequently. And Hardy said “Veronica. Were you picking her up or dropping her off”? And that was sort of Hardy’s humour and it was particularly funny because Grant was one of these people who always hung around the dump on Saturday morning getting a new fridge or a set of hinges or something, you could always come home with a boot full of something or other. So Hardy’s comment “were you picking her up or dropping her off” was very poignant.
Well it was the same Hardy who fifteen years later was running the orchard with me because I worked there most days. And then when we sold the orchard he moved out to the farm down the Middle Road. Later on we helped Hardy buy his own orchard where he is still orcharding to this day down Brookvale Road and he’s a wonderful companion and employee. I think I worked for him rather than him working for me. But however, he’s a good friend.
Such was that sort of intervening period as we were educating our family and Jan was still working at Duart Hospital and we were full into the life around Havelock. It was just marvellous. I remember the kids coming home the first day from primary school saying “God, town kids are lazy Dad”. They were so used to walking the last two miles home and catching frogs and turning up at all hours of the evening with a school bag full of all sorts of things from mushrooms to bolts that had dropped off a truck or something as they walked down the road home, and suddenly here they were in suburbia and playing sport which they all lapped up.
Sarah went to the intermediate and the boys eventually went to Hereworth for a couple of years and then on to High School. Sarah went to Woodford for two or three years to try and make a lady out of this wind blown country girl, and she made some very good friends at Woodford and through the quality of the education she passed all of her exams, School Certificate and University Entrance and was selected for a nursing career at Christchurch Hospital as her mother had been thirty years or so earlier. Sarah enjoyed very good years living here in Havelock with friends, country girls that she had known prior to us moving here and subsequently still has them as her friends today. She sees them in Mahia and she later went on and did her OE.
The boys they too enjoyed their sporting and were able to play in teams. Cameron was the running champion and Richard was the rugby champion, and all this sort of thing went on as it does with young children, and we quickly got to know lots of people in Hawke’s Bay which – hitherto we really didn’t know too many people at all.
But our financial fortunes were sort of dwindling with all this private school education and kiwifruit not doing any good so I was forced to make a career decision to sacrifice the dream that I had with the kiwifruit and replace it with another dream which – I had this fascination in my mind with the English system of leasing and land and tenant farming and I wanted to know more of it. And to cut a long story short I did quite a bit of research into it and went to Perth where there was a model working there called the Australian Rural Property Trust. I met the principal founders of it, a bloke called Ray Jones, and convinced him that the idea would work here in New Zealand.
Ray had come to his own conclusions about New Zealand because he had a friend at Barclay’s, John Percival, who likewise had shares in the Australian Trust and so to cut a long story short we all conspired to set it up here and it basically was New Zealand’s first unlisted public trust in 1984.
And so from a life of going down to the orchard or the farm every morning at 7.30 I was suddenly consigned to getting on the 6.30 flight to Wellington and staying in a grotty little flat and helping put together this idea whereby a Trust is formed and people subscribe for units in the Trust and the manager of the Trust which was basically myself and some investors would then invest this money and buy good farms owning the land only. We didn’t own any plant, machinery or stock. The land was leased immediately back to a good reliable farming family and in many cases the very families who we had bought the land from, stayed on owning the stock and plant but instead of paying horrendously high mortgages which at that stage had got to 16 or 18% they were paying a 5% rental to the Trust.
So this idea was conceived with a lot of care and thought and we set some rules which Colin said “we’re not going to do this, and we’re only going to buy the best land, we’re not going to borrow a dime, we won’t have a mortgage” and all these other business considerations which were designed to protect the investor, and it was a winning recipe – which suddenly on Tuesday, 17 October 1987 the world stock market crashed and contrary to what most people would imagine the Rural Property Trust at that date owned four farms which I had bought. I bought all the farms, I carefully selected them. We had $3-4 million in the Bank. We had no mortgage and our investors were very secure. Their investment was worth the same today as it was yesterday. And the euro would be the same. So that stock market crash catapulted our revenue stream of investment from round about $50-$100,000 a month to a $1 million a month, and the Trust became hugely successful. While this is going on our family are at High School and I’m flying around the country. I quickly learned to use a small plane and visit five or six farms, look at them by air and land and talk to the land owners and fly on to the next ones; it was the only way I could deal with the demand from farmers for the opportunity to sell their land to the Trust and become freehold in their own business. While it was regarded very sceptically by the farming community – anything like this of course that separates a farmer from his land is a real threat – we had a lot of credibility at stake and we were fortunate to have Alistair McGregor and Pat Lowry, two prominent farming families, as directors of the Trust and so that to some degree ameliorated the mistrust of some of the older families. And then when we started buying just the very best farms and leasing them only to good farming families, some respect started to grow, and after dour years Lyn Williams had bought the dairy farms and I had bought the sheep and cattle and cropping farms. After four years we had bought sixty odd farms, spent about $60 million, still always kept 20% of the Trust funds in cash and we kept the farms freehold and we owned two forests which I bought. Each of those is a story in itself, but here was the young farmer from the back country suddenly footing it with AMP and Tower Insurance and BNZ and the Banks and everybody else in the funds management business which was fledgling at that stage. And everybody was calling themselves financial advisers when they had previously been car salesmen or people who couldn’t be employed; and we had no more right to call ourselves credible than they did other than we knew what we were buying because we were farmers, and we knew about farming. And we didn’t buy crap and that quickly became a power in the market place. We became too successful.
If there was – looking back – and so the predators and the financial world closed in around us. Allan Hubbard bought a controlling share in the management company. I didn’t want to work for Allan Hubbard, nor did Lyn and so we quickly resigned in 1990. He then on sold it to Selwyn Cushing and of course from that day he has been [raiding] it ever since. It still exists. The farms are all still there. It’s not still freehold, it’s half the size that it was but anyway for the last twenty years it has been under different guidance.
But I was exhausted and I had also at the time been engaged by Kerry Packer who had bought the Australian Rural Property Trust, to clean up that Trust, and so I went over and reviewed the portfolio of about two hundred farms and – all throughout Australia from Oodnadatta to [?] Station. I was in Sydney every Monday morning at 8 o‘clock and then off somewhere to look at a Station, then write a report saying you should sell this on Friday, and that was going on when I was still running the Rural Trust in New Zealand. When we resigned from the New Zealand Trust, Robert Holmes a’Court from Perth had died and his widow Elizabeth and one of the trustees engaged me to look at Sherwin Pastoral which was a big Pastoral Farming Company which the a’Court family owned, and they asked me to do a similar exercise on that portfolio of farms as I had been doing for Kerry Packer on his farms, and that too was interesting. So during that next 18 month period after 1990 I saw a lot more of Australia than I would ever have imagined. But I was absent from home and I wasn’t doing my fatherly duties at the school sports and the netball tournaments and things and so it wasn’t sustainable.
So Lyn Williams and I formed a business called Agricultural Investments to do essentially the same things we’d done with the Rural Property Trust but just in a very small way so that it didn’t grow too big and it didn’t get too much attention and we wouldn’t advertise; we just worked by word of mouth. And so we did, and I was able to spend a lot more time at home with the family and we’d consolidated our financial affairs by this stage and we were enjoying Havelock life, having probably learned more about farming New Zealand than not too many other people at that stage as it wasn’t too many roads that I hadn’t been up or flown up or farming families that I hadn’t spoken to about the Trust. People were attracted to talk to us because we could find the keys to money. And so it was a very responsible job but still plenty of time for sport and plenty of time for laughter and joining Bacchus Club and Rotary – another really enjoyable activity that hitherto I had absolutely no time for because I was just somewhere else every day.
During that period you had almost a commercial whitebaiting operation in Fiordland?
Well not really commercial in the sense that we never sold whitebait, but certainly yes, it was about then in the mid ’90s, 1992 I think.
Flying round with Barry Gollan was a great experience. Barry’s become a dear friend. A good pilot. A bush pilot but a good one. So we’d be tuning off in our mall, hooning round looking at farms up the top of the Ruakituri, peddling our way down through foggy sort of valleys looking for such and such a Station and then up to Tolaga Bay to look at something else then across the back of Tauranga up the Mamakus – oops, we haven’t got enough fuel we’d better stop – so in amongst all this paddling around the bush flying we were in Fiordland and stopped in at Big Bay to have a talk to a run holder down there who was freeholding his farm – his pastoral lease – and he invited us to stay for a couple of days in hut which we duly did. And the first evening he picked up about 40 kilos of whitebait in his net. Gosh, this was pretty interesting to a couple of would be fishermen like us. We thought we had better stay another couple of days and that’s an experience that’s continued ever since. We go down to Big Bay regularly. In fact Barry and I and Bruce Stephenson are like migratory birds. At Labour Weekend we’re gone for sort of a week or two weeks. Tons of fun. Barry goes flying, Stevie goes hunting and in the early years I took my tanks down and have a bit of a dive. There were a couple of wrecks there. We’ll get some crays and pauas or simply relax from all the travel that I’d been doing and people ringing me. It was a nightmare, and to be released – to be somewhere there was no power, no phone, no mail, no contact was just heaven. To this day we still go back and subsequently bought a hut down there for the boys to do in their time, when they’re a bit older, they can do the same things that we enjoyed doing. Yes whitebaiting is a great activity for a middle to late stage of your life.
It’s a fairly short term season isn’t it – you don’t have to be there all year.
No. Well it’s the one fish species Frank that there is no regulation surrounding limits. You can catch as much as you like. You can sell it (although we never have sold whitebait but everybody else does) and there’s no quotas and no high sort of regulations. The West Coast is absolutely a culture down there for whitebait.
During this period in the ’90s you started preparing the section that this home stands on. And also you start accumulating native and hard wood and all sorts of timbers from all over New Zealand. You might like to comment on that and the fact that you built a home that’s so unique. Greek would it be?
Yes it was. It was from a temple at Delphi. We were travelling over there in 2001 and we were looking at some Greek ruins and we were quite taken by the architecture of the ancient civilizations. Why wasn’t this way… and so I’ll come back to that a little later.
Certainly I’ve always loved the bush because I worked in the bush when I was young cutting pungas, and so one of our career things that we were involved with was trying to rescue AFFCO. That involved me travelling all round their plants which at the time were being pulled down and scrapped and here were these big beautiful kauri beams and matai boning rooms and things all just being burned and trashed so two of us bought a couple of wagon loads of kauri and stuff from the … it was actually the dairy company originally built in 1908 up in North Auckland and we bought all the kauri and brought it home, cleaned it all up and – “what are we going to do with this?”.
It was about the time my father died and his inheritance enabled me to build the bach that we now have at Mahia. Yes we had all this beautiful material and so we built that building which is quite unique with the amount of native wood that’s in it, but I got quite fascinated and I was touring around looking at little defunct sawmills all round the North Island and down the West Coast and talking to bushmen about how you do a cut this way and why you twist it that way. I remember tramping round up in the Coromandel Ranges looking for a hollowed out kauri log which I found and while I was looking at it a joker poked his head in the other end of it and said this is mine. Here we were two hours tramp from the nearest end of the road. It was funny. He was making spa pools out of it. I didn’t really have any use for it so I said you’ve got a use for it, go for it. I’ll give you a hand to get it out which we later did.
Yeah, they were fun times accumulating all this different bits of wood. And then some years later round about the year 2000 the family had sort of gone off overseas on their OE – first Sarah and then Cameron and then Richard, and so here we were living in Mr Bell’s old house, a great big rambling old house. It was far too big for us and had a bit of land round it and there was a section there that we thought well we’ll keep that for ourselves and sell the house and sell the sections and build something that suits a couple of 60 year olds. So we did that.
We sold the old house and we rented a little house down the road, and didn’t really know what we would build next but I still had lots of this recycled timber. And we went off on a bit of an overseas trip just to sort of have a look at some architecture here there and everywhere and our first stop was New York. I remember touring round New York and being impressed with all the skyscrapers and everything and took pictures of the twin towers on the evening of the 5th September 2001 just on sunset. I’ve still got that photo with the date stamped on the bottom of it.
We flew down to Washington that evening and woke up in the morning to see the planes on television crashing into the twin towers that court fire and we were flying to Paris that morning and I had to call into the NASA Space Museum. Barry Gollan had asked me to get him a brochure on something or other. We thought this was pretty interesting, all this terrorism going on, quite stunning really the whole town was done. So we were in this Space Museum and heard this big thump and this big negro usher was outside and the third aircraft had crashed into the Pentagon which was only about 250 yards away from where we were. There was smoke billowing out of it all down Constitution Avenue. We were looking at the White House just literally 100 metres away and thought ‘this could be quite a dangerous place to be so we had better get out to the airport.’
So we went to get out to the airport and the big negro says “Sorry sir, you’ll be going that way” and within an hour of us coming out of that Space Museum there was the most incredible array of military trucks and rocket launchers and radar equipment and all sorts of stuff filling up the street outside where we were to protect the White House and the Congress building. So we were kind of imprisoned. We got in a little local hotel, because our flight was obviously cancelled, there were helicopters flying over the White House and jets over and above that.
Next morning we thought ‘let’s go along to Congress. This’ll be interesting morning at Congress’ and sure enough right on the dot of 10am – emergency meeting. President Bush stands up and declares war, a formal declaration of war, on terrorism and terrorists and Al Qaeda who they knew had done it, and that meant that all insurances in America were null and void and all sorts of things a consequence of a declaration of War. However, we watched – mouths agape – the next five pieces of legislation before we were checked out. The first piece was pensions for all the widows and widowers of the terrorist attacks of 5,000 odd people had been killed, their wives and husbands pensions would be tax free for the rest of their life. That was the first piece of legislation. The Second thing was passed seconds later almost the Secretary of State asked for $18 billion, an unbelievable amount of money, for airport security throughout all seven thousand American airports or whatever it was, and Congress doubled the amount to $38 billion. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere, but it happened – we saw it. And the next piece of legislation was just being debated when once again the big negro comes in and ushers us out, “you’ve had your twenty minutes gentlemen, so off you go”. So we did.
And finally later that week we flew to Paris and we met the children and we had some time with them, and then on to Greece and the archaeology that we had been wanting to look at. I almost immersed myself in it for a week or ten days. Looking at all these old temples and studying the Greek … the Romans really just copied the Greeks and robbed… it was the Greeks who really… some would say the Greeks stole it off the Egyptians who were the previous civilisation or the Minoans and that may well be the case, but certainly what we learnt there was that Greece prior to the birth of Christ when God was introduced as a single entity and everything, had to point to God that just changed architecture forever. Prior to that point God existed in all sorts of forms in the forest and trees and sea etc. In Greek mythology a building was generally built for the senses of the person for your eyes, your ears and nose and all that. I really got into that.
So finally we had a theme for this new house. What we would endeavour to do was to capture some of these rather strange but absolutely enduring qualities of architecture way beyond what has subsequently being devised by mankind. So we did. We set about building the house we now live in and have for 14 years and just rejoice in its uniqueness and it is a very easy house to live in because of the acoustics and because the light is constant in the house and all sorts of aspects of it which came home from the Temple of Delphi.
Interesting. And so while you were doing this you were still carrying on with your property development.
Farming investment. Agricultural Investments which began in 1990 when we resigned from the Rural Property Trust, started just … we bought two or three farms and then we bought a business called Dairy Brands which was eighteen farms. And there were some really interesting experiences in this because it was our first venture into big business. And this was $32million and we’d never handled something like this before. Anyway we had to get $12 million of equity… the $18 million of debt. We were buying out of China. It was an assortment of second rate farms bought by Tom Cunningham and called Dairy Brands trying to copy Tasman Agriculture which had been done by Howard Paterson two years earlier very successfully. This was a shoddy attempt, but however we saw tremendous upside in the production of these farms and while none of them really met our quality standards we could see that we could double the equity investment in the period of two or three years and to cut a long story short with the help of Farmers’ Mutual who invested $8 million and the Sydney investor who invested $4 million we did just that – and the share price was a public listed company, so we had experience now with the private/public trust. Our own private businesses and now we were managing a public company listed on the stock exchange. People were starting to look at us and share prices – we bought at 29 ½ cents a share and 34 months later we wound the company up as a cash box worth 74 cents a share. We had succeeded in doubling the shareholders equity and paid a dividend as well. I think it was a total of 74% return on the capital, annualised.
So we were sort of the bright boys of the financial world all be it country yokels. There’s a lot of jealousy when you get into … a lot of greedy people exist at the top of the tree. You don’t understand this when you just read the papers and you don’t know … but when you’re actually living in that environment greed becomes much more apparent in the higher financial circles you move. Didn’t actually sleep that well at night because we were doing it because it was there to be done, and the success and the challenge and everything else – we weren’t accumulators of money for our own wellbeing at that stage in our life. We were doing it because it was a bit of fun – “let’s do it. We can knock that off, kill it”.
Well that entrepreneurism got sort of captured by one or two … first of all Geoff Jackson who was the chief executive of AFFCO rang me one day and said “look you’re a bit entrepreneurial.” I had previously become a director of Mt Linton and had some influence on that family business in Southland and Geoff had been told by the Banks that AFFCO was – what was the other English company that existed at the same time – the name escapes me, but one or other of them was going to be broke by the Bank which was going to put one or other out of business within 90 days. And so we had a contract with AFFCO to reshape their procurement, prior to this procurement for the freezing works as is today – It was all sort of done on a Sunday night over the telephone, and to cut a long story short we developed pools, contracts, products whereby the company advanced money to farmers in exchange for a forward commitment of livestock and it became very successful. Geoff built the new plants to demonstrate that he could compete with Graeme Lowe and Lowe Walker who were building these million dollar plants and suddenly stealing market share off the bigger older companies and so AFFCO survived and the other English company was put into receivership. And then AFFCO was demutualised which means changing it from being a co-operative to a public company and on that the deal was done – that if AFFCO could raise $50 million, the Bank would write off $100 million. And a team was put together which included ourselves and in fact we were successful in raising $56 million – the Bank wrote off its $100 million and AFFCO suddenly had the strongest balance sheet of any meat company in the country. Which it had been prior to them, AFFCO and Alliance, buying all the assets of Waitaki, a company that Athol Hutton had built up. And they all caught the ‘flu when they bought that. It was a nightmare. All that spare capacity having to be unwound.
To cut a long story short it was very successful for Agriculture Investments Limited and Lyn and I were just left alone to think and devise strategies. And we turned livestock buyers – who would hang over the saleyards with a cigarette in their mouth and a pencil and paper – into contract salesmen selling procurement contracts, putting it straight into a tablet and registering it and suddenly the company had some structure. 74% of their bull kill was coming through a product called the No 1 Bull Pool which we had devised the strategy for. The farmers loved it, the Bankers loved it. It took all of that stocks and debtors off the AFFCO balance sheet and put it into a separate pool account. It was good and it was profitable for us.
So that was very successful and that was followed by a contract from the Wool Board to do a similar thing. The wool industry was going through terrible stress and struggle at the time. The Board had lost all credibility, the Electoral College had been disposed of and falling wool prices had consigned the industry – people were running round with their heads chopped off not understanding what the future held.
So we were engaged to look at the future and straight away started looking at the Irish linen industry which went through a similar process prior to the first World War, and understood implicitly. I went along to have a look at it and understood what happened to the flax producers, the actual linen factories and the distribution network and the products that were being replaced, and it was so obvious what was happening then was happening now to wool with all the competitive products and carpet in the parallel industry. To combat that we came up with a strategy called Fernlink which basically linked 103 export licenses, can you believe that? Twenty seven brokers, sixteen wool scourers – it was just a nightmare. A piece of wool changed hands about eight or ten times before it ever got spun into a product or weaved into a product, and the Fernlink was about creating a franchised system with the Wool Board as the franchisor. And the Wool Board at that stage still had $140 million and was capable of implementing this. It was adopted by the Board, the Chairman came home from England and unilaterally declared that they would not be going ahead with it and sacked the Chief Executive and that died stillborn, that idea, and the wool industry continued on its downward spiral. And the Wool Board Chairman who instigated that was later seen to be an employee of Cavalier Carpets. And of course now it’s a dead industry.
Because all the artificial partners have taken over.
That’s right. Not that our system could have arrested the trend on the market but it certainly would have certainly taken out all of the cost and it would have meant you would have three or four sellers of all New Zealand’s wool clip each owning a franchise, each having to report to the franchisor every week. These are the operations that will operate between this price and this price and the Chinese market this week and you could have through the franchise system have controlled the downward spiral of competition driving the price down. Anyway, so that was a contract which was quite interesting.
It was followed up by Fonterra engaging us to run their farms around the Taranaki plant and the Manawatu plant. Afcorp [?] Investments had the contract to run all their effluent farms and also to set up a livestock on line system for farmers trading in livestock within the Fonterra network, and at that time I employed Andrew Watters who was the sharemilker of the year to actually work on that project.
At the same time I was doing other work for families, the Duncan family, I was the director of Otairi. I was the director of Mount Linton helping that family change from just four beneficiaries to eighteen shareholders in a big business involving many properties. I think it might have been twelve or fourteen directorships. So I was very very busy. Very occupied, shall we say – but I loved it because my brain was getting exercised in a strategic environment where I would go out to the beach for days at a time and just take a problem out there and draw it in the sand and turn it upside down and look at it again and say “Hey, we can do it this way.” “No we can’t because of that” and so we would start again.
Well it was a wonderful five years of mental stimulus. Extraordinary. Meanwhile we were still syndicating a few big farms without any advertising at all. People would say we bought a farm down at Long Range a couple of thousand acres, employed a bloke Peter Barry to be the Equity Manager. He invested a million dollars in it. We collected three or four million from other investors including ourselves. Sold it some years later for $15 million to Peter, and they still farm it today.
We did probably half a dozen of those bigger type investments before … then having employed two new people in the business. And Lyn had dropped out of the business because he was more interested in wine and stuff. We got the young guys syndicating – Andrew Watters and Grant Rowan – and they were advertising my farm. We renamed it and it became quite a big brand for some years, and bought fifty three odd farms and syndicated them with a lot of overseas interests from Germans and Swiss investors. And that continues to this day, although it’s a bit in the doldrums and I sold my shares in that last year, having reached retirement age. At the same time we’re still very much involved helping families plan their succession strategies and in some cases diversification into other activities. It’s always been a life on the edge of farming.
One of the things I’ve always noticed is that you have always had the ability to see the total picture.
Yes, thank you for mentioning that, Frank. I don’t know that it’s borne, but when you start taking on consultancy jobs that are beyond your own intellectual capability you start having to think outside the square and then to think outside the square you’ve got to understand what the square is that you are thinking outside of.
So during this time you’ve also made use of your holiday home in Mahia which is almost as nice as your family home here in Havelock. It’s different but it’s just such a beautiful place. Your boat and I guess your fishing and diving and all those things. It’s just another extension of your life isn’t it?
Yes. Every kiwi loves to go to the beach and the building is just part of it I suppose. For us Mahia is not your Hawke’s Bay bach man’s holiday of going to Taupo or going to Rotoiti if you’re a Gisborne person or where you’re barbecuing with your neighbours and friends. Mahia is a place where real divers, real fishermen, real surfers go, to sort of go that one step further. And yes it’s been an enjoyable destination for the whole family, not just Jan and I. Richard would be wind surfing, Cameron would be diving, Sarah will be sunning herself, giving instructions.
And so I guess the young man from Putere, if I can use that synonym, you’ve left your mark and you’ll probably continue to leave a mark.
Well, I don’t know what to say to that, Frank.
But I mean these things don’t happen as you said. You’re not born with these skills. These skills you develop.
I think our parents did the same thing as their parents almost for generations and those of us who were born round about the war have been a very lucky generation to be able to do two and sometimes three things in our career and to be able to walk away from what you previously did without any fears for “will I be able to do that again?”. We’ve been quite fearless and blessed really with that opportunity to change careers. Whether you’re a stock agent or a stockbroker or what you can then give it all up and go and become an organic farmer or a wine grower or whatever and that’s been a wonderful release from when I think of how parents and their parents – which is where we started – making cement for generations and that’s what they did. And that’s what was expected of them to do and if you’re not going to do it then you can bloody well leave England and go out to one of the colonies and do some other hair brained scheme.
But see underlying all of that … there’s a work ethic isn’t there?
There has to be, to succeed.
I always look at my two boys who when they were 16, 17, 18 – they wanted actually to come on to the farm, but I said no. You can do everything on the farm now. Do you want to do this for the rest of your life? But the one thing that I taught them how to do that they’ve never ever … is I taught them how to work but I never taught them how to stop. Both of them work but I often regret that I didn’t teach them how to stop. We didn’t have weekends, we didn’t have …
But they’ll work that out for themselves, and it will be their wives and children that – as ultimately happened to me in the ’90s – you suddenly think I haven’t been to a single thing that Cameron has done this year and here he is succeeding in all these things and I haven’t been there. I’ve got to stop this and do that. That’s what you’re saying isn’t it?
You sold the farm in Middle Road.
Yes we sold that, and in terms of finances and things – over the years we just accumulated and we’ve been able to invest in various syndicates that we’ve done and my policy is not to buy shares or futures or anything. If it’s one thing I’ve learnt being at the pinnacle of the funds management industry is when it comes to investment for me personally, invest in what you know and understand.
And have control.
Yes. I’m now at the stage where I can’t have control but if you know and understand all of the innuendos of that particular field that you’re investing in it’s so much more relaxing in your mind and your subconscious mind to know that … so in our case I’ve just bought shares when we sold anything or had spare cash. I haven’t accumulated other assets I’ve just bought shares in another farm so we have shares in several farms. Small shareholdings. I don’t want to own a controlling share in any one, in fact I made a decision not to. I believe in the ‘my farm system of governance’ that we’ve now put in place fifty three times. We’ve perfected the model and so I just invest in the better ones where there are good people. And I’ve had bad experiences in some of the syndicates where the people weren’t good, or there was bickering and arguing and the governance wasn’t tight, but as long as you’ve got good people, a good manager and a good farm I just go to bed every night and don’t even think about it. And that’s been our strategy and I’ll stick with it.
Well, that’s a good note to finish on actually. Thank you Cliff.
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Interviewer : Frank Cooper